Ending isolation for the deaf: ministry director promotes independence and inclusion

By Catholic Extension

BILOXI – Start with your open right hand, palm face out, shoulder high. Move your right arm to the left, gently, like a mother gathering her children. Crossing your chest, touch the side of your right hand to your left shoulder.

Then raise both hands to the sky, the left hand slightly higher than the right, a silent show of praise. With your closed hands, a horizontal line just above the head, forming an altar, gracefully extend your fingers and pull your hands apart, like birds taking flight.

This is how to sign the words “Our” and “Father” — a hand that crosses the heart, open hands raised to the sky, just above the head, gracefully acknowledging the God space in which we always dwell.
Helen Keller once said, “Blindness separates people from things. Deafness separates people from people.”
The isolation that deafness brings is almost unimaginable for the hearing, who have no idea what the deaf have to go through to participate in a hearing world. Gregory Crapo, director of the de l’Epee Deaf Center in Biloxi, Mississippi, knows this well.

Gregory Crapo, director of the de I’Epee Deaf Center in Biloxi, is a finalist for Catholic Extension’s 2022-2023 Lumen Christi Award. The award is Catholic Extension’s highest honor given to people who radiate and reveal the light of Christ present in the communities where they serve. (Photo courtesy of Diocese of Biloxi/Gulf Pine Catholic)

Community is key
The ministry was established in Biloxi in 1977 by Daughter of Charity Sister Dolores Coleman. Since 2003, Crapo has served as the center’s director. Today, Crapo and his staff of three promote independence and inclusion in the community for the deaf, hard of hearing and disabled. Catholic Extension has supported the ministry for more than 30 years.

Community is the key word. Community is the only way to end the isolation that deafness brings.
This ministry is as expansive as it is innovative. Crapo and his staff provide interpreting services for the Diocese of Biloxi and its neighbors. Universities and hospitals utilize these services, as do teachers, police and the court system.

Providing interpreters is just a small part of de l’Epee’s mission. The center creates a community in which the deaf and hard of hearing have all the activities and services a hearing community would have.
Crapo has led the expansion of a wide array of social services including American Sign Language (ASL) classes, a food pantry, transportation and emergency services during extreme weather, such as hurricanes.
Young people go on field trips, participate in dances and attend retreats. They receive educational services from academics to religious instruction. Camp D.E.A.F. (Deaf Enabled to Associate for Fun and Friendship) offers five days of recreational activities for children ages 5 to 14. Older teens and young adults trained in ASL serve as camp counselors and are drawn further into empathy and mission. An outside prayer grotto is being planned to help young people know that the call to pray is always and everywhere.

From debt to expansion
When Crapo first arrived, the center was struggling with debt. His leadership has enabled de l’Epee to become debt free, financially stable and in a position to grow its mission. Its outreach is at an all-time high. More and more deaf and hard-of-hearing people are moving into the area for the center’s services.
The ministry is reaching an expanded population through a new branch called The Tabitha Project, which will serve the blind, deaf-blind and people with special needs. Crapo also helped establish a clinic that provides eye surgeries to people in need.

Bishop Louis Kihneman III of Biloxi said, “Greg has been challenged with expanding our established ministry to people of all disabilities while understanding the differences in each area of need.”
Crapo said that the Catholic faith comes alive in sign language. He believes that the sign for “Jesus Christ” is the most powerful. It is the symbol for “king” with a C hand shape and the third finger of each hand touching the opposite palm representing Jesus’ wounds. Crapo says, “Working with our most vulnerable populations is the best way to walk in Jesus’ footsteps.”

In a thank-you note to our donors, Crapo wrote, “Your commitment to Catholic Extension allows us to make our community a better place and is a great inspiration, helping ensure that the staff and volunteers of de l’Epee can provide critical assistance when needed.”

There are those who take advantage of the deaf. Crapo believes that trust building is the most important part of his ministry because such wounds can only be healed through love and in community. Crapo’s trust in God’s love animates his ministry. De l’Epee is truly God’s space.

So, start with a hand that crosses the heart, open hands raised to the sky, hands just above the head, gracefully praising the God space in which we always dwell.

(Catholic Extension is honored to share the accomplishments of Gregory Crapo, a finalist for the 2022-2023 Lumen Christi Award. Visit this page to read other inspiring stories from this year’s finalists: https://www.catholicextension.org/lumen-christi-award/lumen-christi-award-finalists.)